Naturalism in Stephen Crane's 'Maggie – A Girl of the Streets': An examination of determinism and language

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

19 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Realism and Naturalism – two different periods?
2.1. The social background – America after the Civil War
2.2. Topics in Realism and Naturalism
2.3. The special fie ld of Naturalism
2.4. Characteristics of literary Naturalism

3. Case Study: Maggie – A Girl of the Streets
3.1. Determinism in Maggie
3.2. Animal metaphors and language

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

When Mark Twain published his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884, it was seen as the most important representative of a new literary movement: the realistic literature. Though not everyone thought of the novel as a “masterpiece” from the beginning on, it became more popular and significant in the following decades. Ernest Hemingway even called it “the one book that all modern American literature comes from” (Bloom 2004:2). Taken at face value, this statement implies that also Stephen Crane's Maggie – A Girl of the Streets has been influenced by Twain's writing. Since both authors belong to the same period in American literature they naturally adopted literary styles, topics and devices that were typical for that era. Though both novels belong to the realistic period they vary in certain aspects. Unique to Crane's novel are the use of language and the determinism that accompanies the story. These aspects are the central subjects of this paper. It states that language, the characters and the aspect of determinism make Maggie a rather naturalistic than realistic novel. To understand the difference between both terms a review gives the characteristics of realism and separates naturalism as an independent literary form. The two main aspects that make Maggie a naturalistic novel are being examined separately afterwards. Here, the novel itself shall be the main source. At first, determinism is detected in the novel and it shall explain how the characters' fate is shaped throughout the story. Afterwards, aspects of naturalistic language and animal metaphors are examined. The conclusion gives a brief summary of the findings and offers further considerations on the topic and the novel.

2. Realism and Naturalism – two different periods?

Naturally, a literary period is always connected to the social environment that it reflects. While the realistic and naturalistic movements started about 30 years earlier in Europe than they did in America, the United States still held on to Romanticism. However, after the end of the Civil War, that brought a lot of destruction to the country, most people could not stick to literature that refers to an ideal past. The new literary movement regarded Romanticism even “as the chief, long-lived enemy in literature” (Budd 1995:42).

2.1. The social background – America after the Civil War

Wars in American history do not only shape the political situation of the country but they also seem to be the priming for new literary developments. The Civil War ended in 1865 and brought about a new way of thinking. Generally speaking, the war lead to a broader perspective of men and women in America (cf. Quirk 2010:8). Unsteadiness and confusion marked this after-war period. Americans had to experience a “wearying war [. . .] at a frightful cost of 360,000 lives and the destruction of the southern economy and much of its landscape” (Tindall and Shi 2004:562). Tom Quirk even talks of a number of over 600,000 victims; but the definite number cannot exactly be identified (cf. Quirk 2010:8). People had to adapt to the alterations that were going on in society: technology changed the lives of the Americans drastically (cf. Budd 1995 :26). More and more people could make use of new inventions, such as indoor plumbing, central heating, gas lighting, bathtubs, iceboxes, and sewing machines (cf. Tindall and Shi 2007:431). The communications revolution, and especially its most important invention – the telegraph in 1830 – made faster communication possible (cf. Tindall and Shi 2007:431). People could exchange news and information more rapidly and in 1861 the “entire continent had been wired for instant communication” (Tindall and Shi 2007:431). Technology did not only affect the communication sector but it also revolutionized the American industry. Due to technological novelties such as the cotton gin and the mechanical harvester the agricultural development rose (cf. Tindall and Shi 2007:432). But what was even more significant was the development of the factory system (cf. Tindall and Shi 2007:432). Simultaneously, cities grew and became a venue for every American who wanted to escape from farm life and/or earn better money to support their families at home (cf. Tindall and Shi 2007:434). New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston became the largest cities and attracted a several thousand people. By 1860 New York was the first city that reached a population number of more than 1 million (cf. Tindall and Shi 2007:438). 50 percent of the U.S. Population lived in cities by the year of 1920 (cf. Tindall and Shi 2004:676). By moving to a bigger city people automatically adopted a new way of living and differed increasingly from those who remained on their farms (cf. Tindall and Shi 2004:677). Accompanied by the creation of an urban culture were new forms of entertainment (cf. Tindall and Shi 2007:439f) that made the cities a new vibrant and mysterious place. Saloons offered workers a place to forget about their hard working and living conditions. Sporting clubs, prizefighting and so-called blood sports, such as cockfighting, became popular forms of amusement in the cities (cf. Tindall and Shi 2007:440). One major problem of the working class was drinking: there was no social event where alcohol was missing and thus many laborers soon became dangerously addicted (cf. Tindall and Shi 2007:440). More and more people moved to the big cities not only from all over the continent but also from abroad. “The years from 1845 to 1854 saw the greatest proportional influx of immigrants in U.S. History, 2.4 million, or about 14.5 percent of the total population in 1845” (Tindall and Shi 2007:443). America became a nation composed of Americans, the British, Germans, the Irish and many smaller groups that did not always live peacefully together. Especially the bigger cities were a source of racial and ethnic tensions (cf. Quirk 2010:10). Associations, such as the Know-Nothing party, turned against anything that was not American and demanded the exclusion of immigrants (cf. Tindall and Shi 2007:448). Many immigrants wanted to maintain their customs and took them to the new country (cf. Tindall and Shi 2007:447). Consequently, the United States became an even more multicultural country and especially the cities were the center of different ethnic groups.

Most people from the working class lived in inhuman conditions: child labor became normality (about 2 million child laborers by 1900 (cf. Tindall and Shi 2004:658)), the work in factories was dangerous since there were no means of protection for the workers who did not always know how to handle the modernl machines. 25,000 deaths a year were caused by accidents that happened at the work places (cf. Quirk 2010:9). Employers were not concerned about their workers' health but about increasing the production and their own income. The cities were polluted, the tenements had almost no air for breathing and many people died of diseases (cf. Quirk 2010:10). Driven by poverty and discontent workers started to organize in unions and to stand up for better conditions (cf. Tindall and Shi 2004:660). One prime example was the Railroad Strike of 1877, a reaction to the curtailed wages. This “first major interstate strike in American history [. . .] engulfed hundreds of cities and towns, leaving in its wake over a hundred people killed and millions of dollars in property destroyed” (Tindall and Shi 2004:661). Though the strike has been unorganized it shows how urgent improvements in the social sector were and how determined people were to enforce them.

The period that followed the Civil War can be summarized as a period of changes – both good and bad. The proceeding of new inventions and technology made the United States the number one economical force in the world. At the same time, the social life of the Americans transformed as well. “A new urban consciousness and culture, and [. . .] rising class tensions” went ahead side by side (Tindall and Shi 2004:673). Tindall and Shi describe the United States at the end of the 19th century as “a loose aggregate of competing individuals, divided from one another by economic differences and ethnic, racial, and class prejudices” (2004:673f). Especially the social imbalance was clearly noticeable. The country could increase its influence in the world and many entrepreneurs became wealthy. But these new riches were not dispersed equally. Most Americans, especially those who made the progress possible – the working class - did not profit from the achieved luxury. The South was destroyed after the Civil War and could not make use of the wealth that the industry provided (cf. Cowley 2004:66f). Naturally, this new way of living reflected in the literature produced at that time. Writers used current topics, that dominated the social life, for their literature.

2.2. Topics in Realism and Naturalism

Louis Budd notes in his article that literature had mostly ignored current affairs during the time before Civil War (cf. Budd 1995:34). This ignorance of truth was a feature of the dominating sentimentality in the pre-war period. Romanticism was widely spread, promising “to set all wrong matters right “ and (especially white) people believed in it (cf. Budd 1995:34). As already mentioned, the situation changed drastically after the Civil War. Americans had to face a growing population, immigrants that brought new customs to their country and, connected with the technical improvements, the sprout of big cities. Violence and riots ended the dream of the romantic idealism that was mostly concerned with the past (cf. Lehan 1995:48). Romantic writers saw their profession as the description of spiritual and biblical happenings, rather than dealing with problems that were up-to-date before the war (cf. Tindall and Shi 2004:701). However, the Civil War functioned as a turning point in most people's minds: the destruction and the terror it brought could not be conformed with the romantic outlook on life that idealized the past (cf. Tindall and Shi 2004:701). The real problems and topics of the present had a greater importance to the people. Authors started to write about a variety of stories that could often be understood as a protest against prevailing conditions and almost any aspect of the American social life. Indeed, there where only few topics that were not covered by realistic writing. Inspiration could be found in immigration, the rise of the big cities, prostitution, race relations etc. (cf. Scharnhorst 2010 :4). But not only the Civil War alone, but also the technological advance was a reason for the new ways of thinking and producing literature (cf. Tindall and Shi 2004:701). In some way the war brought about a few positive aspects after all: the hidden talents of people were revealed when they had to organize themselves militarily. “A new group of managers, who were able to transfer their increasingly professional skills to the business world” appeared (Lathbury 2006:6). The main focus of early realistic writing was on the middle class because the readership consisted of people who belonged to this social stratum. Therefore, literary critics often connect the advance of the new novels with the development of a new middle class: “A fortified thesis holds that the modern novel, inherently mimetic, arose along with the middle class of a commercial, industrializing society. The aforesaid began craving to be presented respectfully and encouraged that end by buying the obliging novels” (Budd 1995:32). People wanted to hear and read about stories that could be connected to their everyday reality. Literature, in return, documented how people could deal with and acclimatize to their new environment full of inventions, such as electricity, industry and new forms of leisure. The authors mainly focused on minority groups and people affected by poverty, alcoholism or similar social hindrance (cf. Randolph 2004:47). Since realistic writers dealt with a wide range of topics, realistic literature could be subdivided into different categories, depending on what their main subject was. Gary Scharnhorst distinguishes between local color Realism (also called Regionalism), psychological Realism, critical Realism, and Naturalism (cf. 2010:4). Local colorists concentrated on one particular geographical area and adopted its dialect and customs. Psychological realists could be recognized by a unique style (“prolix and periphrastic”) (cf. Scharnhorst 2010:4). The aim of the critical Realism was to show the unbalance between those who contributed from the successful new industries and those who worked for them under bad conditions (cf. Budd 1995:34). While the fields of the former three are relatively clearly defined, problems and different approaches have mainly come up with the term 'Naturalism'.

2.3. The special field of Naturalism

Realism was already an influencing literary movement when, during the 1890s, a new wave of literature was published and named Naturalism. Some critics hold the opinion that realism rather belongs to the umbrella term of naturalism (cf. Budd 1995:42). The most important criterion that separated naturalism from realism is the aspect of determinism, especially scientific determinism (cf. Tindall and Shi 2004:705). Oscar Cargill, who is cited by Malcolm Cowley, defined naturalists as rather pessimistic: “The naturalists were all determinists in that they believed in the omnipotence of natural forces. They were pessimists in that they believed in the absolute incapacity of men and women to shape their own destinies” (Cowley 2004:61). In short, Cowley calls the naturalist technique the “magnification of forces and minification of persons” (2004:61). But what is contradictory to the Cargill statement is that pessimism does not always predominate in naturalistic writing: admittedly it is a rather “dark” optimism when Richard Lehan says in his article that even when the human being itself goes down at the end , the species always reacher a higher step in the evolutionary ladder (cf. Lehan 1995:48). But there is the hope of progress. Maybe his sentence implies that the failure of particular persons belongs to the overall process that leads mankind to a further step in development. A similar thought occurred by the famous naturalistic writer Frank Norris: he believed in process as well, but one sacrifice that people have to make, is the suffering of some individuals (cf. Cowley 2004:62). These thoughts reveal that the overall target – Romanticism – cannot always be fully avoided. The optimistic phrases about the positive future of men implies a certain romantic idea (cf. Cowley 2004:62).[1]

Common in all naturalistic ideas that spread over the United States since the 1890s were the actual attempts to reveal social injustice and the bad conditions that most average people had to live in (cf. Tindall and Shi 2004:706). What distinguished naturalists here from realists is that the former based their ideas on the fact that men could not control their own destiny. This lack of freedom 'let the people of the hook', thus they were not, or at least not primarily, responsible for their own actions (cf. Lathbury 2006:70). This belief varied from the original idea of the realistic movement that individuals can contribute to society by learning from their mistakes and make therefore own choices: “If one looked on life directly, one might also make sound, individual choices that accrued to the benefit of society” (Quirk 2010:21). This leads back to the idea (mentioned above), that the society can still make progress towards a better direction even if individuals have to make sacrifices for that.

The reason for a person's own incapability of shaping their own life roots in the ideas of social Darwinism. Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) influenced nearly every aspect of American (and European) thinking. The importance and the range of influence that Darwin's theories had, has been summarized by Louis Budd: “The questions that Darwin stimulated were far-reaching yet intensely personal, gritty yet exciting, obvious to wits and journalists yet profound to philosophers of science” (1995:28). The main idea of the book was that the process of “natural selection” chose certain species to survive while others died away due to factors that made them inferior to other species (cf. Tindall and Shi 2004:701). The bottom line was that only those could survive that have the right characteristic traits, such as quickness, shrewdness etc. (cf. Tindall and Shi 2004:701). What appeared to be a big shock for religious, traditional Americans seemed to be the explanation for the social conditions to naturalists. Authors, such as Jack London, applied Darwin's theories, that were originally tailored to animals and species as such, to the human society. He thought that human society had exactly the same biological principals when it comes to “the survival of the fittest” (cf. Cowley 2004:64). Some people had specific preconditions that direct them to a certain way in life. People who ended up as alcoholics or in poverty did not chose to do so but nature itself and the environment they lived in pushed them into that direction (cf. Cowley 2004:65). Scharnhorst therefore forms a simple equation: literary naturalism is the result of Realism plus Darwinism (cf. 2010:5).


[1] But this positive view has not been accepted by every naturalist and is therefore not a typical feature of naturalism but rather belongs to realism as a whole.

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Naturalism in Stephen Crane's 'Maggie – A Girl of the Streets': An examination of determinism and language
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald
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naturalism, stephen, crane, maggie, girl, streets
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Kristina Eichhorst (Author), 2011, Naturalism in Stephen Crane's 'Maggie – A Girl of the Streets': An examination of determinism and language, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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